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Threatening National Security or Bridging the Digital Divide? A Case Study of Huawei’s Expansion in Brazil
25 Oct 2023

On 25 October 2023, Dr Jin (Julie) Zeng, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University (FIU), spoke at a webinar titled “Threatening National Security or Bridging the Digital Divide? A Case Study of Huawei’s Expansion in Brazil.” The webinar was jointly organised by RSIS and the Green School, FIU.

Dr Zeng’s research centres on how Latin American countries have resisted US pressure to remove Huawei from their telecommunications networks. Her presentation focused on Brazil, where she sought to explain why former President Jair Bolsonaro, an avowed populist and anti-China leader, allowed Huawei into Brazil’s 5G auctions.

Dr Zeng focused her argument on three issues: the lack of persuasive causal narratives to justify banning Huawei; the high costs of banning Huawei; and the impact of contingencies such as China’s vaccine diplomacy. First, Bolsonaro’s weak authority and the lack of evidence about Huawei’s wrongdoings led to a failure to securitise the issue and convince policymakers to act. Second, not only was the cost of replacing existing Huawei equipment and using other 5G vendors extremely high, but there were fears of retaliation from China, Brazil’s biggest trading partner. Third, China’s vaccine diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic ostensibly catalysed a policy change, with the Brazilian government allowing Huawei in 5G auctions in January 2021, days after Beijing agreed to export vaccine components to the country.

Dr Zeng said her research highlights the importance of causal narratives in international cooperation, and that trade dependence on a potential sanctions target is only one of the costs that third-party states consider when pressed to cooperate. She noted that third-party states can exercise agency in their response to bigger powers, with Brazil constructing two 5G networks (including a government network without Huawei equipment) to satisfy Washington. Huawei also laid the groundwork for sanctions-busting behaviour by investing heavily in the Brazilian economy and hiring former President Michel Temer as an advisor for added influence.

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